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A lumpy yellow fungus with many wires poking into it.

Is this fungus using electricity to communicate?
Image: Andy Adamatzky

When people talk about fungi, what do you imagine? Mushrooms and toadstools are instantly recognisable parts, but there are many types of fungi that grow in different ways. Some fungi have a root-like structure called a mycelium (my-SEEL-ee-um), that can grow into a huge network. Now, scientists have spotted electrical signals within mycelium networks that fungi might use to communicate.

Andrew Adamatzky from the University of the West of England, put electrodes in the mycelia of 4 different species of fungus, and looked for electrical activity. Over several days, he noticed patterns of spikes appearing in the graphs.

The spikes weren’t evenly spaced like a ticking clock. But they also weren’t completely random. Andrew used language-studying tools on the fungus signals, and found some similarities with human languages. He theorises that a fungus language might have up to 50 words!

So why look at electrical activity? Your nervous system works on electrical signals, transmitting information to your brain and sending instructions out. Electrical messages are fast, so animals with a nervous system can respond quickly to changing environments. Mycelia don’t have brains or even nerves and their electrical signals can take minutes or hours to peak, but it still might be a way for them to send information.

This isn’t the first time scientists have looked at fungal communication. When bean plants are linked underground by fungus networks, connected plants will respond by releasing repellents when any plant is attacked by aphids. Fungus networks also transport nutrients between different plants, in exchange for food.

It’s too soon to say what the newly identified signals actually mean. The root-like tips of growing fungi are electrically charged, so their movement and growth could be causing the signals accidentally. Plus the signals look similar to how nutrients flow through fungi. It’s clear that more science is needed before we can talk to toadstools.

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